Truth or Death

Lori Sambol Brody

Writer’s Note: I set out to write a flash novella about a high school theater kid (Julia) navigating her older sister’s wedding, with a dose of Jewish folklore mixed in. Think of Sixteen Candles crossed with The Dybbuk. As I wrote, however, I found myself relying on the tropes of Jewish generational trauma – in my first draft of the (unfinished) novella, Julia discovers that her grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. I didn’t want to write about that (and how could I write about it in a way someone has not written about it before, how could I top Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl”?) Instead, I wanted to write about Jewish joy, about the Jewish holidays, about Julia’s sister’s wedding (and about the sister being possessed by a dybbuk, because what bride isn’t?). I wanted to write about Julia’s dreams of being an actor, and of finding a perfect boyfriend (or girlfriend). I’ve always been enthralled with the story of the golem – in folklore, it’s a servant or protector of the Jews from pogroms, but other retellings of the golem story have made a golem a vehicle for revenge or for maternal love. A creature made of clay and dirt, that can be molded to be whatever its maker wants. What better a way to show someone’s hopes and dreams?

              We’re sitting in Roksana’s living room, my sister Ashley, Roksana, and me on Roksana’s secondhand couch, picking Ashley’s bridesmaids’ dresses. But we’re not getting much done, just scrolling down Ashley’s Pinterest page and saying, yeah, this one is ok but the halter the length the horrid green. I’m just amazed they’re letting me – a high-schooler – help.

              Bookcases fill the room. Roksana and her roommates are Russian grad students, share this run-down house near UCLA. She says she got a good deal because she knew someone who knew someone and that’s how things work in Russia and here too. I get up, run my fingers along the books’ spines:  leather-bound books with spiky Cyrillic writing, dog-eared paperbacks with fraying covers, an Uzbek-English dictionary. I imagine that some of the books are grimoires, books of magic and incantations.

              Ashley drums her French mani against her iPad.

              Did you bring these books when you left Russia? I ask Roksana.

              Roksana snorts. I was five. She opens an enamel box on the coffee table and takes out a joint. Ever smoked before, Julia? Roksana’s eyes pierce me like I’m a butterfly in an insect collection.  She exhales.

              I’m in drama. But when I inhale I cough so perhaps I’m not that good of an actor.

              The joint circles between us. Ashley talks about her fiancée. Chuck’s a paper doll in a chain of Ashley’s boyfriends, all with boy-band hair and their Levis slouched just so. They talk about productivity or venture capitalism or how robust their app is.

              The sun has set and wind blows through the oleander in the backyard. I say, The wind sounds like the future moving toward us.

              Ashley asks if I’m stoned yet and I say, I feel nothing. They laugh at me but I totally rocked the line about the wind in the school musical. Whatever that’s worth. I mean, everyone but me hooked up with someone at the cast party. Ian even hooked up with Brooklyn.

              Can’t you stop talking about Chuck? I say.

              One day you’ll understand.

              Roksana grinds the stub of the joint into a Caesars Palace ashtray. Let’s make Julia a golem boyfriend.

              I don’t want a boyfriend. I don’t even convince myself. And I don’t want one that does everything I say.

              I think you’d like that, Ashley says.

              Roksana steps out the slider into the wildness of her backyard. Dark shadows loom against the walls and stretch over the kidney-shaped pool. The dirt in the empty flower beds smells dank from yesterday’s rain.

              Ashley teeters out in the stilettos she wears even though she’s not at work, her heels tapping against the concrete deck. A boyfriend would be good for you.

              Roksana kneels in the mud. I kneel too. The earth dampens my jeans.

              Ashley get us a flashlight if you won’t help, Roksana says.

              Can you make a golem? I ask. I mean: aren’t they just legend? I mean: can I find a boyfriend?

              All us Jews can. She makes it sound so obvious. As if us Jews have some sort of magical powers.

              She mounds dirt into a long oblong. I dig my fingers into the cold mud, pull out huge clods. It’s hard to believe that life can bloom from soil. Even my radish plants in kindergarten withered.

              Ashley holds the flashlight, the light dancing as she switches hands. In the circle of light, we mold mud into long legs and broad shoulders. Roksana’s hands work confidently and quickly, as if she’s used to sculpting. She forms lips, eyes, a nose. You like them long and lanky?

              Like Ian? Ashley says.

              Shut up, I say. I regret telling her anything. I mean, Ian is tall and skinny, he was all legs and arms and stooped posture until, in summer acting classes at the Theatricum Botanicum last year, I looked at him during the mirroring exercise and caught my breath.

              The important part. Roksana sculpts a penis between his thighs. Not too big. She winks. In the dark they can’t see me blush.

              Roksana surveys her work and rubs her hands against each other to loosen dirt. I stand up, damp ovals on the knees of my jeans. Dirt darkens in half-moons on my cuticles.

              Roksana hands me a slip of ruled paper and a promotional pen from Mon Ramen, tells me to write truth in Hebrew. Spells it for me alef, mem, chet. I’ve been bat mitzvahed: I write אמח. She says, We can only stop the golem if we remove the letter alef so the word becomes death.

              I’m cold, Ashley says.

              Roksana presses the paper into the golem’s forehead. My stomach is full of fear and anticipation. The wind blows stronger. The pool’s surface ripples like a sea snake swimming toward us and a coyote yips. The figure emits the smells of smoke and blood and birth and decay. Does an eye blink open, do the legs twitch?

              Or is that just a trick of my mind and the pot and the light?

              How would it feel to have a boy made of mud touch me, kiss my lips? Would he be as cold as rain or hot as lava?

              Julia, have you ever been in love? Ashley yawns.

              I lean forward, dizzy, tear the א, aleph, off the paper. To make חמ.

              I swear he moved, I say.

              Ashley says, This weed is strong.

              Roksana laughs. I can’t tell if it’s a cruel laugh. What a joke.

              They go inside, leaving the slider open, and mix drinks at the kitchen counter. The wind blows and I shiver. The figure lies still, part of the mud he was sculpted from. He’d be taller than Ian, a bit heavier. But empty, something for consciousness to fill. You want a drink, Julia, Ashley calls. The wind blows and I kick the clods of dirt that formed my golem, feel the soil give under my feet, and then go inside.

Lori Sambol Brody lives in the mountains of Southern California. Her short fiction has been published in Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Craft, and elsewhere. Her stories have been chosen for the Best Small Fictions and Best Microfiction anthologies, Wigleaf Top 50, and Longform Fiction Pick of the Week.